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Seattle's advice for Vancouver to reduce homelessness: stay ahead of job growth

Last Updated May 16, 2019 at 5:46 pm PDT

File - In this May 24, 2018, file photo, a man sleeps on the sidewalk as people behind line-up to buy lunch at a Dick's Drive-In restaurant in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Be careful what you wish for when it comes to attracting jobs in the technology sector — that caution is coming from Seattle’s Director of Planning and Community Development as Vancouver struggles to make housing more affordable.

Samuel Assefa is reporting the technology boom from companies like Amazon has created an unprecedented housing crisis in the Emerald City, especially downtown.

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Samuel Assefa says there’s a 50-50 split of renters and owners, but it’s been difficult convincing existing owners to allow more multi-family units next door.

“We need to hear the voices that are not being heard, so we tell stories of a policewoman who can not afford to live there,” he says.”Telling those kinds of stories and connecting this abstract policy — bringing it back to how it affects people.”

Assefa says recent attempts to re-zone 27 neighbourhoods almost failed in a city where 47 per cent of the homeless have no shelter.

“That became the biggest contentious issue almost every meeting that my staff goes to or I go to, saying we don’t want that changed,”he says. “Yes, we do want affordable housing, but it shouldn’t happen in this area.”

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Seattle now has a policy ordering all builders to include affordable housing units in every new development, but Assefa says the average high rise project has an 18-month timeline for approval.

Assefa says nearly 70,000 housing units have been added over the last seven years, but there are now 82,000 people living downtown.

“We decided that any area within ten minute walk distance of existing infrastructure should have multi-family housing,” he says.

He adds that only impacts six per cent of single family housing, but it’s still been met with resistance: “The voices that are always most heard have been homeowners. It’s not for any evil reason, it’s just change is very threatening.”

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The homeless count for Seattle and it’s surrounding communities in King County has dropped for the first time since 2012, but Assefa says the latest count is still more than 11,000 people.

He also blames what he calls a ‘legacy of racism’ for ensuring most of the homeless are immigrants and people of colour.

Assefa was speaking at a luncheon in Vancouver hosted by the Urban Development Institute.